George Orwell understood that antisemitism was a prejudice unlike most others in that it was also a conspiracy theory. This insight helps explain his observation that “one of the marks of antisemitism is an ability to believe stories that could not possibly be true”. Because as Israel’s citizens have been forcefully reminded in recent days, this goes for conspiracy theories generally.
The fact that an alarming number of people seem to be taken in by Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence that he’s the victim of a nefarious left-wing plot makes this a national tragedy. Never mind that the actual arguments in favour of this plot literally disintegrate in the presence of thought. This conspiracy apparently involves the chief of police who investigated the allegations and recommended that Netanyahu be charged, and an Attorney General who agreed with him and decided to indict the prime minister. These two ‘leftists’ are Roni Alsheich, a religious Zionist settler from Kiryat Arba, appointed to his position by Netanyahu; and Avichai Mandelblit, the scion of a Revisionist family, appointed by Netanyahu to be his Cabinet Secretary before being appointed again by the prime minister as Attorney General. Unless you are prepared to swallow the patent absurdity that these two men were part of a left-wing conspiracy to bring Netanyahu down, the entirety of Bibi’s tower of bluster and bile collapses.
And that’s before you get to the implication that the judiciary – a regular punching bag for the right ever since the Likud abandoned its traditional commitment to the Supremacy of the Law – is also in on the whole dastardly enterprise. Never mind that the judiciary has had nothing to do with the decision to charge or indict Netanyahu. Never mind that the Supreme Court (that ultra-liberal, hyper-interventionist Supreme Court that we’ve been warned about) has had more than one opportunity to rule against Bibi being allowed to serve as prime minister and has rejected the option each time. And never mind that, as David Horovitz wrote on this site yesterday, the one time the judiciary has convicted an Israeli prime minister it was not a right-wing hero, prevented by the ‘leftist establishment’ from annexing Judea and Samaria, it was Ehud Olmert, forced to resign as he was attempting to negotiate a two-state solution.
Netanyahu’s speech yesterday outside the court is almost certainly the most disgraceful public address ever delivered by any Israeli prime minister. Never before has a leader of the State of the Israel declared public institutions of the State of Israel to be, effectively, enemies of the people. Never before has a leader of the State of the Israel so blatantly and publicly divided the country in two: the patriots who support him, and traitors who do not. It was populism 101. He used the tactics that have worked so well for Recep Erdogan in Turkey and Viktor Orban in Hungary. The leader presents himself as representing “the people” But only the leader can channel their needs and desires, and only he will determine what is the truth and what is “fake news.”“The people” meanwhile is never all the people. Those who don’t support the leader are “them,” not “us,” and specific groups in the society will be scapegoated as the archetypal “other”—ethnic minorities, opposition voices, etc.
So what to make of the many, many Israelis who apparently give credence to this baseless propaganda? It’s unfair to simply say they’re stupid. It’s also implausible. (However it may seem after a phone conversation with the cable TV or internet provider, Israel simply does not have that many stupid people.) The reality, as has been compellingly presented by behavioral psychologists like Jonathan Haidt, is that human beings are far more likely to respond emotionally than intellectually when making political judgments, or deciding which public figure to believe. We also have a built-in resistance to admitting we were wrong. Many people who voted time after time for Netanyahu will not easily reconcile themselves to the fact that they’ve repeatedly chosen to elect an unprincipled liar. People are also tribal. There’s no other way to explain continued support for the Likud over decades, by the same voters, when the Likud has moved 180 degrees from positions it used to hold in the days of Menachem Begin. And, to return to where I began, with Orwell’s quote about antisemitism, a great many highly educated, and probably otherwise decent people have “believed stories that could not possibly be true” about Jews throughout history.
There will not be an easy way out of this morass. How it ends will not only depend on the verdict of the court. Also critical will be how successful Netanyahu and his surrogates are in continuing to whip up anger against ‘the plotters’; and whether someone with enough authority in the Likud grows a backbone and is willing to stand up and say: Enough!
Netanyahu, a man with extraordinary political and intellectual gifts, could have been one the greatest Israeli leaders. Instead, his legacy will be this fetid attempt to save his own skin by tearing Israeli society and democracy apart.